Learning about lives through design research

Design research is an approach and set of methods that are particularly well suited to understanding the reality of people’s lives, what they want for the future and how the current situations help and hinder them.

The limits of conventional consultation

Common approaches for research and consultation include interviews, surveys and town hall meetings. Whilst these methods have their place they also have their limits when working on tough social challenges that require radical new solutions.

Large group ‘town hall’ type consultations can be effective when participants have the confidence to speak up, when problems are well defined and there are a finite set of solutions. However, place-based initiatives usually aims to meet the needs of people who may not have the confidence to speak up (because of a history of marginalisation) and problems and solutions are complex and hard to define. In these situations design research methods can offer a better way to understand people’s lives, needs and preferences.

To fuel innovation we need deeper alternative insight that can lead to breakthrough solutions. We need to learn new things to inform different things. However, conventional consultation often reveals surface level insight, what people thinkthey need. Henry Ford once said “if I had asked my customers what they would have wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Of course he didn’t go into horse breeding he developed the mass produced motor car. And he did that because he understood what people value – getting from A to B more quickly. It’s this type of breakthrough insight that design research strives to uncover.

Whilst a surveys might aim to validate 10 questions you already know to ask design research seeks to identify 100s of potential starting points for innovation.

How can design research help?

Design research typically happens in context (eg in people’s homes), uses small sample sizes eg 8-12 people, and engages 1:1 or in small groups. Sometimes design research involves spending hours or even days with an individual. Design research usually involves getting clear on the questions you need to answer,  identifying who you need to speak to to answer those questions and then combining multiple methods to reveal the required data.

Observational methods like rapid-ethnography or user diaries can reveal what people actually do, rather than what they say they do.  Generative methods in which people respond to stimulus, play games or design things can reveal what people feel, dream and value. And when you understand what people value, as Henry Ford did, you have great fuel for innovation.

Design research complements conventional consultation

Design research can be thought of as a complementary tool to large sample research and data sets, a set of methods that are particularly useful when engaging marginalised groups or looking to create non-standard solutions.  Existing evidence, data and large-sample research (eg from surveys) can and (if it exists) should be used to inform design research. In turn, what’s developed by a small groups through design research activities can be be validated through a survey with a larger sample size.



You can deepen your understanding of design research through these resources: